Autumn has come to the NWT and the aurora borealis has returned. In an ordinary year, hundreds of thousands of tourists worldwide make plans to see the lights.
This year, with the territory’s borders closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, tour companies in the NWT are staring at a bleak season. While staycations helped offset the loss of travelling tourists in the summer, operators don’t expect many locals to pay to see the aurora.
Joe Bailey is the founder and chief executive of North Star Adventures, a Yellowknife-based tour company. In a normal season – from mid-August to mid-April – Bailey says his company welcomes 3,000 to 5,000 customers.
But virtually all of them come from beyond the territory.
“As long as the border remains closed, we have no tourists, pretty much,” he said.
The NWT’s borders have been closed to tourists since March, when the first case of Covid-19 in the territory was recorded.
Though some restrictions have subsequently eased, the ban on tourists travelling freely across the territory remains. Beyond that, Canada has imposed restrictions on who can enter the country from abroad.
As a result, Bailey said, North Star has to find some other way to make money.
Ideas so far include shuttle services taking Yellowknifers to the Ingraham Trail, where it’s easier to see the northern lights without the glare of the city’s light pollution. Residents can get photography tips while they’re at it.
Still, prospects for the season don’t look good.
“We’re trying to redesign our tours for a Yellowknife market, and that’s very tough because anybody can pretty-much step out their back door and see the aurora,” Bailey said.
“We’re in survival mode, no doubt.”
Years to recover?
There are fears for the longer-term viability of the territory’s aurora tourism industry, given the competitive nature of aurora-viewing packages.
In an ordinary year, the NWT goes up against Scandinavia, Alaska, and other destinations that offer similar opportunities to see the lights.
“We’re competing against beautiful countries like Iceland, and Norway, and Finland, and Alaska, with all the mountains and glaciers and lakes,” said Bailey.
“I think it’s gonna take two, or three, or four years for the aurora tours to start back up in Yellowknife again.”
My Backyard Tours, another Yellowknife-based tour company, has ceased offering aurora tours altogether until the territory’s border reopens to tourists.
Amanda Peterson, one of the company owners, described a “harsh reality for tour operators” heading into the winter.
Grant Beck, who runs Yellowknife’s Beck’s Kennels, shared the pessimism of others about the winter staycation market.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to come even if we’re open, because they don’t need to – they can do it on their own,” he said.
Beck’s Kennels runs dog-mushing tours and aurora-viewing trips. Beck says his business is one of the largest such operators in the territory, rivalling the likes of Aurora Village.
With no tourists booking services, Beck said he has instead taken the opportunity to carry out maintenance on the company’s facilities.
“We are revamping all of the cabins, and equipment, and dogs, and ski-doos, and buses, and so on,” he said. “So just preparing for the season. That’s all.”
Fortunately, Beck said, his company is well-placed financially at the moment. He hopes Beck’s Kennels can weather the next few months.
“We had our savings built up and we’re fine now, but it depends on how long it goes,” he said. “If it goes for a year or two, then it’s a different story.
“We’re going to try to just do some local things, like the dog sledding and that sort of thing, through the winter.”
‘All we could ask for’
While the lack of business is disheartening, tour operators said they understand why the border restrictions remain in place.
Bailey, though, said he wished more help was available for tourism businesses.
“The GNWT has really dropped the ball and hasn’t provided any relief funding,” he said. “I just wish the government would have stepped up, realizing that they are keeping the borders closed [and] they should try to assist the tour businesses more.”
In May, then-tourism minister Katrina Nokleby told tour operators the territory was lobbying the federal government for tourism relief programs tailored to the North. Nokleby has since lost her seat in cabinet, with finance minister Caroline Wawzonek last week being assigned the tourism portfolio.
Peterson said she is optimistic My Backyard Tours can overcome this year’s setbacks.
“We’ve been in the industry for 35-plus years,” she said. “We’ve been through some bumps and challenges, and we have capacity to move through some more.”
Bailey encouraged NWT residents to continue to support local tourism.
“[If they] want to do something different, even though they could see the aurora in their backyard, [and] they want to learn about the technical aspect of it – why Yellowknife is the best, what is the aurora, and some legends – call us,” he said.
“We’re from here, we’ve been here, we’re gonna be here forever. If they could just understand [and] support local, that’s all we could ask for right now.”
This coverage of the NWT’s business sector during the Covid-19 pandemic is sponsored by the NWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment. Visit Buy North for more information on businesses near you.